Are Corsets Bad for You?


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We've all heard the stereotype: the high-society Victorian lady bound mercilessly in a sixteen-inch corset, so tight someone could almost wrap their hands around her waist. She fancies herself fashionable, but breathing is a struggle, she faints at the slightest exertion, and when they perform the autopsy (which they wouldn't have, since such things were highly taboo at the time) after she eventually dies--of oxygen deprivation, naturally--they'll find her rib cage deformed and her organs warped beyond all recognition.

velvetcorset.jpg

Like most iconically Victorian devices and trends, corsets tend to get a bad rap in modern society for being a health hazard. As a corset enthusiast myself, usually the first thing I get after "Nice corset!" is "How can you breathe in that?", often followed by a litany of other concerns. Corsets were a subject of controversy even during the height of their popularity and doubts continue to circulate in popular conception about their safety. Make no mistake--real, steel-boned corsets should not be used ignorantly. There is a proper way to wear them, and there are potential detriments if certain guidelines aren't followed, but tales of deadly, disfiguring, and severely harmful corsets can discarded to the realm of fashion myth.

Over the years, corsets have been accused of causing everything from scoliosis and liver deformation to tuberculosis and cancer. These are all false charges, put forth primarily by less-than-fully-informed medical men in the 19th century. Less extreme claims do have more truth behind them: corsets can weaken back muscles, cause digestive problems, and alter the shape of the lower rib cage. However, these are consequences of wearing a corset virtually every day for prolonged periods. Weakened muscles, in particular, tend to result from not getting enough exercise, or improper (though fashionable in past centuries) corset wear to begin with, such as beginning waist training too young and thus preventing normal muscle development. Reshaping of the ribs only occurs with years of tight lacing (a form of more extreme waist reduction), nor is such alteration necessarily or even likely to be harmful. In the shorter term, corsets do force organs to shift around somewhat, but not dangerously so. Finally, to address the most common corset question: yes, one most certainly can breathe in a corset. Corsets restrict the waist, not the lungs, so breathing will simply come more from the chest than the diaphragm. In any case, corsets can always be loosened. Properly fitted, they are really very comfortable.

As entertaining as it may be to imagine people of past eras as having subscribed to all manner of crazy fashions that sent them into early graves, the medical evidence shows that corsets, while certainly not the easiest garment, are far from the kind of hazardous historical trend in the vein of, for instance, smoking. Beyond being quite safe, there are a number of potential benefits associated with corsets. They can improve posture, provide back support, and even be used for medical purposes. They may also be used as a diet and weight loss aid, due to the fact that they limit food intake. Most of all, corsets simply look great, and are a lot of fun to wear. (And no, they're not just for women.)

2 Comments

This post completely reminded of me of Pirates of the Caribbean when Kiera Knightly literally cannot breathe in her corset. Here is a clip!
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgxDn6kZcFQ

I have never worn a corset because I truly believed in these myths that you cannot breathe, so thanks for your post!

I'm a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and yeah, the corset scene is a well-known one. As much as the "Women in London must have learned not to breathe" and "Do you like pain? Try wearing a corset" jokes are funny, though, they're just that--funny jokes. The only way a corset would have actually made breathing a challenge for her would be if she was doing strenuous activity in it, like running cross-country or something, and since she wasn't...if we were going to analyze the scene realistically, it wouldn't have been the corset that caused Elizabeth to faint. As for pain, granted, not everyone likes the restricting feel of corsets--they're designed to be tight and they limit your flexibility a bit--but they're not painful unless they're fitted improperly.
I'm glad I cleared up some misconceptions for you! Corsets are truly a lovely piece of clothing, so I hope you won't have any reservations if you ever want to try one.

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